By Janay Draughn
Some people — especially Southerners, like myself, who endured state history lessons in elementary school — know a little something about the Great Dismal Swamp: it covered about 2,000 miles, or 1,000,000 acres, before it was drained and altered by canal companies; it’s home to poisonous snakes, black bears, panthers in the past, dozens of butterfly species, yellow flies, cypress trees, river otters, bobcats, and more; at its center is a circular freshwater lake, called Lake Drummond, which is one of two freshwater lakes in Virginia and is named after Virginia’s first colonial governor.
The Great Dismal Swamp also has a history of myth, white colonial fear, and resistance to slavery in the form of world-building Maroon communities — communities of Indigenous, African, and African American people who fled slavery and settler-colonialism to establish communities in the Dismal from the 17th through mid-19th centuries.
The Dismal always occupied a mythical, haunted space within the white colonial imaginary. The name, “Dismal,” comes from the English understanding of swamps and wetlands as wastelands generally bleak, or dismal, and dangerous to “civilized” humans.[i] William Byrd II named the swamp as such after he surveyed it in 1728 — a journey in which he saw a Maroon family — and decided that it would only be useful for lumber harvesting, canal digging, and other destructive changes.[ii]
There was also a white literary imagination surrounding the Great Dismal Swamp.[i] Edgar Allen Poe’s “Dream Land,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp,” and Thomas Moore’s “A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp,” among others, built the swamp’s reputation as a fearful place of wild creatures, human and non-human alike. White painters, like Thomas Moran, constructed similar depictions of the Dismal and its community members.
Newspapers are also evidence of the mystery and fear surrounding the Dismal. Clippings from the Virginia Gazette, Edenton Gazette, and other periodicals contained bulletins promoting the capture of self-emancipated Black people who had fled into the Dismal. Written warnings of coming slave rebellions, and suspicion that they were tied to the Dismal, are also documented. In response, fearful white citizens across the Tidewater area wrote to their colonial governors to encourage the formation of brutal militias.[i] The Great Dismal Swamp was basically a known secret at the time — portrayed by white people as a site to be feared and fought, but for those who lived there, it was a site of resistance, survival, and fugitive community-building.
Marronage and Maroons
The practice of removing oneself from enslavement and slaveholding society to form communities near or far from plantations is known as marronage and was endemic across the Americas, the Caribbean, and other places where slavery was sustained. Many maroon societies formed along or within swamps in the U.S. South, despite hushed attention around it in favor of liberal notions that the Northern U.S. and Canada were safe havens and enslaved people’s ultimate desire was assimilation. This practice of survival and impulse for revolutionary imagination still exists in Maroon communities, such as those in Suriname and Accompong Town, Moore Town, Charles Town, and Scott’s Hall in Jamaica.
The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp were comprised of different groups. Self-liberated Black people who fled nearby plantations settled in the swamp from the 17th to mid-19th century and grew their families. Indigenous people, such as the Chesapeake, Nansemond, Meherrin, and Tuscarora tribes, likely fled to the Dismal in large numbers as a means of survival from 1607–1730 following violence and epidemics from colonization.[vi] Those who remained in the Dismal and didn’t migrate further away were joined by Black Maroons who became the majority in the Dismal in the 17th century. Enslaved laborers become quasi-members of Maroon communities after the Adventurers to Drain the Great Dismal Swamp, under George Washington’s leadership, solidified in 1762.[vi]Additionally, dispossessed white indentured servants likely lived as Maroons in smaller numbers.
Even before marronage, the Dismal has a long history of inhabitation. Contrary to popular narratives, the Dismal was not an empty, unstewarded place prior to colonists encountering it. For many millennia before colonization, archaeological evidence shows that Indigenous tribes hunted, foraged, and traded in the swamp, and had assigned it significant cultural value through folktales and other cultural production.[viii] Upon entering into fugitivity in the Dismal, Black Maroons likely learned a lot about the swamp and survival in it from Indigenous people in the area who had generational knowledge of it.
Each maroon community created housing structures, developed sustainable survival practices, chose certain spaces in the more or less remote parts of the Dismal based on their desired degree of freedom from the deadly outside world, and created communal spaces for gatherings. By and far, there are very few manufactured goods that have been found, showing how self-functioning the communities were. Nevertheless, Maroon life was in no way easy or idyllic, as much of the security and sustainability they established in the Dismal was held alongside the insecurities brought on by outside threats and everyday needs.[viii]
In a swamp steeped in white fear and angst, colonial business ventures, later national and state pride, and environmental destruction, there was another world grown from Black and Native Maroons living out their imaginations and impulse to build and keep on living. They found ways to exist and build outside of a state apparatus and exhibited a praxis of freedom that was opaque to white society and their philosophies of freedom, citizenship, and assimilation. The Great Dismal Swamp was an ecology of resistance, life, and beauty as its natural condition literally provided protection for Maroons through its wildlife, temperatures, murky waters, and colonists’ fear of its earthen rebellion. Today, descendants of Maroons and Indigenous people in the Dismal are doing the work to have their ancestors and the Dismal cared for.
Below are some questions to reflect on independently or discuss with others:
1. Were you aware of the presence of maroon communities in the Great Dismal Swamp? If not, what are your initial reactions to what you read? If you were already somewhat familiar with this topic, how did what you read align with or diverge from what you already knew?
2. Photographs often reflect a person’s positioning and understanding of place and bodies. Take a moment to look through Nikki Bass’ website and photo gallery, at https://descendantsofthegreatdismal.com, to see the life and light present in her photos. Nikki Bass describes herself as “a scientist, an advocate for responsible research, and a Descendant of the Great Dismal.”
a. Take some time to also explore Bass’ StoryMap titled “Indigenous Life on the Nansemond River: Our Story of Cultural Revitalization through River Stewardship.”
3. Below are two literary representations of marronage, Maroons and fugitive. Take a moment to interact with them.
a. Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “Dream Land.”
b. Palmares by Gayle Jones presents marronage and Maroons from the vantage point of a formerly enslaved Black woman in 17th century Brazil. It explores the difficulty of liberation in revolutionary spaces, especially where patriarchy rules, and what liberation can look like for Black women in intimacy, autonomy, and community in a historically-informed fictitious account of Palmares, a famous quilombo that was in Brazil.
Janay Draughn is the MDC Dan Broun Summer Intern. She is from Greenville, North Carolina, and is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English with a concentration in Africana Literature and Culture. She enjoys learning about the South and loves reading imaginative, Black Feminist, and experimental literature. She fiercely believes that orange juice is much better than apple juice. If you find any errors in this article, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen, Ridwaana. 2021. “Wild Paradise: Hope in the Great Dismal Swamp.” Southeastern Geographer 61 (1): 1–4.
Cummings, Ronald. “Maroon In/Securities.” Small Axe: A Journal of Criticism, vol. 22, no. 3, 2018, pp. 47–55.
Day, Thomas. “Mired Memory: “Marronage” in the Great Dismal Swamp.” Social and Economic Studies, vol. 67, no. 1, 2018, pp. 33–47
Golden, Kathryn B. “Armed in the Great Swamp”: Fear, Maroon Insurrection, and the Insurgent Ecology of the Great Dismal Swamp.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 106, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1–26.
Peixotto, Becca. “Wetlands in Defiance: Exploring African-American Resistance in the Great Dismal Swamp.” Journal of Wetland Archaeology, vol. 17, no. 1, 2017, pp. 18–35.
Sayers, Daniel O. “The Documented Great Dismal Swamp, 1585–1860.” In A Desolate Place for a Defiant People: The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp. Florida: University Press of Florida, 2014, pp. 84–113.
Sayers, Daniel O. “Two Hundred and Fifty Years of Community Praxis in the Great Dismal Swamp.” In A Desolate Place for a Defiant People: The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp. Florida: University Press of Florida, 2014, pp. 200–216.
Smith, Sarah Stefana. 2022. “Keeping Time: Maroon Assemblages and Black Life in Crisis.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 121 (1): 11.
[i] See Allen, pp. 1
[ii] Byrd’s observations are in his then widely read book, History of the Dividing Line.
[iii] See Day, pp. 35
[iv] See Benjamin Golden, pp. 11
[v] See Sayers, pp. 87
[vi] For a better explanation of the presence of still enslaved laborers in Dismal Maroon communities, see Chapter 4: “The Documented Great Dismal, 1585–1860” in Sayer’s A Desolate Place for a Desolate People, especially pp. 101–104
[vii] See Sayers, pp. 87
[viii] Read Cumming’s “Maroon In/Securities” to learn more about the coexisting securities and insecurities of Maroon life